Employment Law Alert: One Year Statutes of Limitation Upheld in Employment Discrimination Case

On July 18, 2013, in Acuna v. San Diego Gas & Electric Co., No. D060064, the Court of Appeal time barred a former employee’s discrimination claims by strictly applying the statutes of limitation provided by Government Code sections 12960 and 12965. A plaintiff has one year to file an administrative complaint under section 12960, and one year to file a civil lawsuit after receiving a “right-to-sue” letter from the administrative agency under section 12965.

Plaintiff Acuna was a former employee who filed a lawsuit against San Diego Gas & Electric alleging disability discrimination, racial discrimination, and retaliation. Acuna filed numerous administrative complaints prior to filing her lawsuit: She initially filed an administrative complaint based on racial and gender discrimination with the Department of Fair Employment & Housing (“DFEH”) on March 16, 2006. The DFEH issued a right-to-sue letter on March 27, 2006. Acuna filed a second complaint with the DFEH alleging disability discrimination on February 23, 2007, for which a second right-to-sue letter issued on February 19, 2008.

Acuna was subsequently terminated on July 11, 2008, which prompted her to file a third complaint for retaliation on October 23, 2008 with the DFEH. The DFEH issued a right-to-sue letter on November 7, 2008. Acuna filed her lawsuit on November 5, 2009, which was more than three years after the first right-to-sue letter was issued.

With regard to the claims for racial discrimination and disability discrimination, the court held that the lawsuit was time barred because it was filed after the expiration of the one year limit provided by section 12965. The court specifically rejected Acuna’s argument that the time to file the lawsuit was extended because of a continuing violation. The court concluded the filing of an administrative complaint manifests an understanding by the plaintiff that informal resolution of the dispute is futile, thereby precluding application of the “continuing violation” doctrine for purposes of section 12965. The court further held that informal negotiations or discussions between an employer and employee do not toll a statute of limitations under the equitable tolling doctrine.

However, the court did allow Acuna to pursue her retaliation claim because the “unlawful practice” itself triggers section 12965. The court emphasized that it is irrelevant when the employer’s alleged unlawful motive arises. Acuna illustrates how sections 12960 and 12965 furnish employers a formidable defense against stale and meritless claims. The court’s decision reinforces these statutes of limitation and marginalizes the equitable doctrines commonly raised by plaintiffs to avoid them.

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July 22, 2013